World War 2 History: MV Wilhelm Gustloff Sunk; More Than 10,000 Aboard
A Little-Known Tragedy
When RMS Titanic hit an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean and sank on April 15, 1912, more than 1,500 died in one of the world's worst peacetime maritime disasters in history. The tragedy of the Titanic caught the imagination of the world and is a worldwide cultural touchstone, vividly remembered a century later. Many, however, have never heard of the sinking of MV (Motor Vessel) Wilhelm Gustloff, which was torpedoed in the Baltic Sea in 1945. Thousands more lives were lost than the Titanic-- including thousands of women and children.
By the middle of January 1945, Soviet armies had cut off parts of East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Reminiscent of the French and British situation at Dunkirk in 1940, the only way out was by sea. German Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, in direct violation of Hitler's orders, launched Operation Hannibal, the largest emergency evacuation by sea in history. Over the next 15 weeks, almost two million soldiers and refugees would be evacuated over the Baltic Sea to Denmark.
Brief History of the Gustloff
In the port city of Gotenhafen (now Gdynia), Poland, ten miles north of Danzig (now Gdansk), the Gustloff had been at anchor for four years, serving as a floating barracks for German submariners. The 680-foot 25,000 ton Gustloff, with a capacity to hold almost 1,500 passengers, had been built in in 1937. Originally a cruise ship, when the war started she was briefly converted into a hospital ship and then sent to Gotenhafen where she was again converted to accommodate 1,000 U-Boat sailors in what was supposed to be her last and permanent docking.
Reactivation and Chaos
On January 22, the Gustloff was ordered to become seaworthy again. Work began on her engines, which had been idle for nearly four years, in addition to other necessities, including several anti-aircraft guns. At first, boarding was orderly, restricted to U-Boat officers and crew, members of the Women's Naval Auxiliary, and wounded soldiers. Next to board were the “privileged” refugees-- those with contacts and money. By January 30, the official ship's list showed 6,050 on board, 3,000 of them refugees. However, the docks were now crowded with refugees of lesser means and the mood had turned ugly. Fights broke out as desperation grew; people saw their chance to escape the Soviets disappearing. Children fell into the icy waters from the gangplanks as people fought their way on board. Small boats full of pleading mothers and children begged for passage. Relenting, the crew lowered nets and more gangplanks. By the time the Gustloff was ready to leave port later that day, it is estimated that more than 10,000 people were aboard, packed in wherever they could find space, including the ship's empty pool. By nightfall the air temperature on the Baltic Sea had dropped to 0° F (-18° C).
All Lit Up
The Gustloff was accompanied by another passenger liner, the Hansa, and two torpedo boats, but the Hansa and one of the smaller boats had to break off when they developed mechanical problems. The Gustloff and the torpedo boat Lowe continued on. Although there were four captains on the Gustloff's bridge, the senior captain, Friedrich Petersen, overrode the others, including a submariner lieutenant commander, when he determined to set a course for the open sea instead of hugging the coast. He thought the risk of hitting a mine was greater than running into a Russian submarine. In another fateful decision, Petersen had the ship's navigation lights turned on because he thought there was another German convoy in the area and didn't want to risk a collision in the dark.
Captain Alexander Marinesko of the Soviet submarine S-13 had just barely escaped being court-martialed for failing to return from leave on time back in Hango, Finland and was determined to redeem himself. For that reason, he had strayed far beyond the normal area of Soviet operations. When he saw the Gustloff lit up as if it was on a cruise, he couldn't believe his luck. The S-13 fired three torpedoes, all of which struck the Gustloff. Panic ensued as the ship started to list. Lifeboats were covered with ice and only a few were able to be launched. Many passengers were trapped below or already dead from the explosions. Those who couldn't get in the few lifeboats and rafts took their chances in the sea where most died of exposure. The Wilhelm Gustloff slid beneath the surface less than 40 minutes after being struck.
Picking Up Survivors
The torpedo boat Lowe managed to save 472 lives while other German vessels heeded the distress signal and headed toward the disaster site. Hopes lifted as the cruiser Admiral Hipper, accompanied by the torpedo boat T-36, arrived. The Hipper already had 1,500 refugees on board and its captain, Henigst, was nervous about other Russian submarines in the area. He ordered his escort, the T-36, to help with survivors and then ordered the cruiser away from the scene. The T-36 took on 564 survivors and managed to dodge another torpedo launched from the S-13. Other boats managed to pull 216 survivors from the waters. A total of 1,252 survived the sinking.
Crabwalk by Gunter Grass
Gunter Grass, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote Crabwalk, which was published in 2002. It is a novel about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff whose main character is a middle-aged journalist who was born in the torpedo boat as the Gustloff went down.
Because of the panic to board the Gustloff, it will never be known how many died that night. Heinz Schöne, the ship's purser who survived, has done much research and published numerous books and papers on the subject. His estimates, backed up by additional researchers, are that there were approximately 10,600 people on board and that about 9,400 died-- thousands of them women and children.
All four captains survived. Due to the collapse of Nazi Germany, no inquiry into the incident was resolved.
Submarine Captain Marinesko hoped to become a Hero of the Soviet Union, but, because of his prior and continued behavioral problems, ended up getting kicked out of the navy in October 1945. He did get honored for a successful mission three weeks before dying of cancer in 1963. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev declared him a “Hero of the Soviet Union”.
Poland has declared the site of the sinking as a war grave to protect it from further looting of artifacts.
There is no doubt the Gustloff was a legitimate war-time target, according to the rules of war. She carried combat personnel and she was armed, however lightly, with 3 1/2 inch anti-aircraft guns. She was not a hospital ship, nor was she marked as one. Whether he cared or not, the Russian captain could not know how many non-combatants, including women and children, were on board. That is the tragedy of war.